They Looked Like Jellyfish But Boy Were They Tasty at the Pagoda Vietnamese Bistro and Bar

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We were all given score cards right from the start. This was a media tasting dinner, and one that was more workmanlike from the start. At each plate was a card on which we were asked to rate the dishes and wines served us during the next hour and a half. In two weeks, Pagoda Vietnamese Bistro and Bar, 4705 Inker Street, plans to open a brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and they've put some new dishes on the menu to go with it.

In many ways, this is a do-over for the Heights restaurant. Open only three months before Hurricane Ike went through in September, it had to close down after the roof came off and the whole inside of the building was flooded, according to Ester Tran, a co-owner. They were able to open three months ago and since then have been building back up the business she began with her sister, Sandy Tran.

First up were pagoda rolls ($7) with spicy fish sauce. Wrapped in a light rice paper, they were moist with a good blend of pork, shrimp and bean sprouts.

The shrimp salad was completely different than what we expected -- no mayonaise anywhere. It was a nice light and tangy change from the usual.

Next were the White Rose Dumplings (Banh Bot Lac) - which Ester Tran said they had the most reservations about putting on the menu because of the way they look. The gelatinous cakes of sticky tapioca were filled with sautéed whole shrimp and pork topped with scallions. Before eating one, I had to suppress the feeling that I was biting into a mini jelly fish, but the taste was wonderful. In fact several diners went back for more and more of these as the communal style meal went on.

The hot rolls (Thit Nuong Cuon) are called this because the meat inside (pork, shrimp, beef) is grilled. There's also a tofu version. We had the beef which had a nice flavor to it, but, if it sat a little too long, tended to pop out of the roll in one piece and be a little bit tougher to eat. The ones right out of the kitchen were much better.

I'm not a big eggplant (Ca Tim To) fan so while I thought this dish was good, I didn't go wild over it. Others who had it said they liked it a lot. I also didn't like the Ham-let -- Vietnamese ham, sausage tomatoes and chive omelet served with rice - as much as I thought I would. I thought it was probably cooked a little too long.

Raul Delafuente, who is in charge of wine selections at Pagoda, did a good job through the evening, but two wines were clearly standouts (at least as far as this group was concerned.): a Secret Valley pino blanc out of the Alsace region of France and a red blend, Can Blau Montsant from Spain that combined Carinena, Syrah, and Garnacha grapes.

As a special bonus, the servers brought out "Shaking Beef" with tomato rice and that dish with marinated chunks of filet mignon is just so good it got gobbled up in no time.

The restaurant is open for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday, noon to 11 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. on Sunday. The brunch kickoff party is scheduled for Sunday March 29 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and will come complete with waffles, wings and pancakes as well as traditional Vietnamese dishes. Prices range from $4 to $14 for the individual items.

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